Confronting a Top Killer: The Cancer Threat

Cancer is projected to become the leading cause of death worldwide in 2010.

That is a staggering piece of information and one that deserves our full attention. It means that despite the progress we have made here in the United States and other developed countries in decreasing the burden from cancer, the rest of the world is far behind and is suffering the consequences.

Here at our National Home Office in Atlanta, the American Cancer Society is joining with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer to highlight the worldwide burden of cancer, and what must be done around the globe to stem this needless tide of despair and death.

In the last 30 years of the 20th century, the global burden of cancer more than doubled. That trend is projected to continue, and by 2030 there could be 27 million newly diagnosed cases of cancer, 17 million deaths each year and 75 million people alive with cancer within five years of diagnosis.

Why are we seeing this explosion in cancer?

One quarter of cancers in developing countries are attributable to infectious diseases, some of which are preventable with currently available vaccines. More importantly, although 12 percent of cancers in developing countries today are related to tobacco, that number is expected to increase significantly as cigarettes spread their scourge around the world. There are many countries that are still in the relatively early stages of their own tobacco pandemics, and have yet to be affected to the degree seen in the United States. The future impact of tobacco on the health of those countries is absolutely frightening.

Another sad tale is that many developing countries are adopting Western lifestyles at a quickening pace. We are exporting our diets, our habits and our fast-food outlets throughout the world. Along with that comes overweight and obesity, and with that an increase in the risk of cancer deaths in both men and women.

Couple these factors with an increase in global population and aging of that population, and you have a formula guaranteed to increase the numbers of people diagnosed and dying from cancer.

The organizations coming together here today have issued a "call to action" that they believe will help stem the tide of this developing tsunami:

1. Make vaccines that prevent infections that cause cancer more widely available to low-income nations.

This is especially needed for cervical cancer, which is a leading cause of cancer death among women in low-income nations. Unfortunately, this vaccine is expensive, and we need to find ways to make it more affordable so women in developing countries can have access.

2. Commit to a comprehensive tobacco control approach in the United States.

We are making progress, but we could do better. The recently released "Report to the Nation" highlighted the wide disparities among states when it comes to effective tobacco control measures. The natural result is that there are parts of this country -- including many in the Southeast -- where deaths from tobacco-related cancers far exceed those in other parts of the country. This is not a distinction we should be proud of.

3. Ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control here in the United States.

Throughout the world, 161 countries have ratified this treaty designed to reduce the devastating health and economic burdens of tobacco. Why not us?

4. Support Nongovernmental Organizations' efforts to build advocacy and resources, help survivors and reduce suffering throughout the world.

We have learned here in the United States and elsewhere that power comes from within. We need to take the lessons we have learned, and help others to help themselves in a manner consistent with their own cultures. We need to encourage governments and companies throughout the world to recognize that they have the ability to influence the cancer burden in their own countries. They are far from powerless if they decide to address the issues.

5. Promote culturally sensitive risk reduction and education campaigns.

People throughout the world can get the message, and they can do something to help control their fate. We have believed, and we have accomplished. So can people everywhere, through advocacy and raising awareness among the public, governments, civil society and the private sector.

6. Invest in cancer research and expand access to prevention and early detection measures.

Infrastructure is a "hot topic" these days. There is a cancer research infrastructure as well, and that infrastructure is at risk of decaying because of research funding that has been flat or cut. We also need to make certain that every person in this country has access to prevention, early detection and effective treatment for cancer. Now is the time to make certain that everyone can get access to what we already know works. The impact would be astounding.

So, as we gather here in Atlanta, the message will be one of alarm and concern. But it will also be one of hope.

We have accomplished a great deal in this country attacking the burden of cancer. We could do much more. We can also work with our colleagues around the globe to help people and nations to understand that they too can do more.

They can do more to prevent cancer, especially through controlling the tobacco epidemic before it grips their nations. They can do more to get cancer-preventing vaccines to their people who are suffering the impact of cancers that we in the United States and other developed nations have done much to prevent and control. And they can get the attention of governments and corporations in this increasingly flattening world to pay attention to the human "bottom line" as well as the financial bottom line.

Let's hope that the power of these very special and committed organizations coming together in recognition of this global epidemic is the start of a special journey that we will look back on with pride in the years to come.

Len Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. You can view the full blog by clicking here.

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